The Metaverse is here, but whose world will it be? Discover four womxn artists who cross the precipice between traditional and New Media, moulding the Metaverse from within.

Sarah L. Roberts | Ed. Peter Traynor | 26 April 2022

The Metaverse presents a possibility for play and creation in a virtual realm that is not encumbered by weighty realities. As opposed to earlier iterations of VR or XR, the Metaverse is inhabited by digital native artworks created within the virtual space, often taking the form of NFTs. A new technological realm, it’s the most emancipated from our “real” lives yet. Industry publication, The Art Newspaper claims that successfully avoids the issues of storage, location, display, and authenticity that have long perpetuated the physical art world’s structures and presented barriers to access and ownership. As an ever-increasingly financially lucrative and saturated market, the metaverse is at a crossroads between growth and fairness of profits, equity and democracy.

The utopian vision for a new artistic realm comes with the caveat that the Metaverse is still distinctly intertwined with our own reality. The tenuous relationship between arts, big tech and the crypto community finds its new home here. These groups are not mutually exclusive, but everyone is vying to own a piece of the ‘meta-pie’ the question remains, who will get the most substantial slice? These 4 artists embrace the possibilities that this cusp holds by toeing the line between digital art and physical practice. Referencing the canon in their practices, they are reformulating the rules of the art world in New Media.

Olive Allen, First Day in the Metaverse, 2021. Digital sculpture, looped video and metaverse compatible. © Courtesy of the artist.

Olive Allen

Olive Allen hails from the US, a New York artist and crypto-native. As an early adopter of NFTs, Allen has been trading crypto works since 2018. Her upcoming solo show will open at Postmasters Gallery in late April. The exhibition is appropriately titled Welcome to the Metaverse. Turning the gallery space into a gaming environment, with New Media works in her signature saccharine bubblegum pink and grape soda purple she blends real-life with access to online works. The 90s tech-utopia is swimming with the novel appeal but contains hidden critiques of capitalist culture.

Known as a pioneer of Digital Art, Allen is also credited as the first to coin the term “drop” about her artwork when she released her NFT collection 13 Dreadful and Disappointing items (2019) for a limited 24-hour sale. The artist references the optimistic possibilities for playfulness and unbound creation raised by the Metaverse. However, she simultaneously gestures to the ongoing entertainment commodification enacted by multi-media corporations. Recently, Allen’s AR Time (2021) and TV Time (2021) were shown at Art Basel Miami within Zaha Hadid’s virtual display, NFTism, works that reference the ubiquitous consumption of scrolling and date in our lives.

Nodding to inspirations such as Takashi Murakami, the artist combines retro gaming and millennium memorabilia in her work. Avatars, toys, gaming culture and a Gen Z vernacular all emerge, with inspirations from Billie Eilish to furbies and pokemon cards. All are embedded with the artist’s own childhood tastes and her sardonic wit. She brings out the inner child (or inner teen) in her viewer with animated aesthetics, tackling the future of our relationship with web3. The artist uses branding and commercial styles, reminding us Metaverse holds excellent possibilities for liberation but warning that it may be hijacked for profit by cynical corporations.

Carla Gannis, Object Body (2021), Mp4 Video and Archival C-Print. © Courtesy of the artist.

Carla Gannis

Drawing on her traditional background as a painter, transmedia artist Carla Gannis references the grotesque, twisted beauty of northern renaissance and mannerist painters. In an explicit tribute to the fantastic painting of dutch master Heironymous Bosch, Gannis remakes his famous Garden of Earthly Delights (1503-1515), with a unique digital twist in her Garden of Emoji Delights (2014). 

Bosch’s original work was a highly intricate allegory to contemplate human morality, while Gannis pays homage to the artist with her blend of contemporary and historical sign systems. Rather than painterly symbolism, Gannis uses the virtual glyph system of emoticons, expanding its use as an international expression of human emotion. The visual language of the “smiley” takes its place in the history of communicating our most authentic emotional meaning. The work is currently being displayed at Fotografiska Tallinn until 28th August and is available as both looped animation and physical work.

This fascination with blending Digital Art with classical technique finds root in Gannis’ works. Her ongoing series, titled Yonder, features scans made from her smartphone. Using an app to capture scenes, Gannis embraces the glitches and blurs that corrupt the digital, clinical image. Taking the camera outside into the “real world” is a vision Gannis credits to impressionist painters 200 years ago, obsessed with the interaction of light, motion and sound on our optics. The NFT series incorporates digital C-prints (pictures exposed to lights or LEDs digitally and washed as in traditional darkroom practice) and moving image works, accessible online.

As an investigation of the increasing entanglement between our tangible and virtual selves, Gannis contemplates the meaning of the object in the era of meta, rebuilding her body in hazy, pixelated format. According to the artist’s description on marketplace 1stdibs, “Yonder is a place and state of being, just within sight, but not quite”, an apt description of the emergent metaverse increasing in magnitude this century.

Emma Stern, NAOMI-1 (2021), Digital Painting (NFT). © Courtesy of the artist.

Emma Stern

The Brooklyn-based digital artist and oil painter references the duality between real and virtual life, leaning into a practice that perverts and reproduces the feminine nude in the NFT-verse. The artist told Evan Malachovsky of design magazine Coolhunting  in 2019, “The virtual world is real, and my online life is real.” Stern, known as @Lavababy on Instagram, coined the same term for her female muses, fetishised avatars that gently satirise video game culture. Representing her self-reported theory that everyone secretly “wants to be a hot girl”, her art frequently references the fine line between embodiment and sexual penetration.

In an interview with Creative Boom magazine, published in October 2021, she claims her work aims to emphasise the lean towards pornographic representation, or “porn-adjacent” imagery in digital culture. Her paintings represent hyper-sexualised, voluptuous digital bodies with peach-shaped butts and cone-shaped busts, an impossible perkiness, probably best epitomised by Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Her work isn’t strictly critical; she pays homage to this visual vocabulary of countercultures, taking on a tongue-in-cheek tone, with figures that wear assless chaps and raise a finger to their lips to the viewer. In a recent series, she produced variations on her oil paintings in cyberspace, combining the physical portraiture with NFT assets.

Stern trained in classical oils at the Pratt Institute, her smooth brushstrokes and skilful application demonstrate technical skill and delicate blending reminiscent of Titian or Caravaggio before her while also incorporating an almost alien sheen. Blending the high art canon with underground cultures, she makes both worthy of artistic appreciation.

Sara Ludy, Astral Garden (2021), Digital animation, 30-second loop. Commissioned by Valentino Insights. © Courtesy of the artist.

Sara Ludy

Hybridising nature and the real, New Mexico-based Sara Ludy recently geared her NFT practice towards social justice by releasing her artworks in a fund-raising effort for Ukraine. Born in 1980, the American artist developed an interdisciplinary approach with digital painting, VR, websites, installation and sound. She is already well known in the New Media space, notably for her work Projection Monitor (2011) on the platform Secondlife. Like many digital artists, she decided to break into the NFT market, seeing the opportunities it brought to long under-recognized friends and colleagues. 

Her work hopes to produce a utopian dissolution of space and time in the virtual, creating amorphous digital paintings with soft, dark colours that take on a liquid quality, like molten lava, referencing the digital scroll’s fluidity. A recent commission from design house Valentino resulted in NFT work Astral Garden (2021) in which Ludy hopes to bridge the gap between earthly and incorporeal forms. Claiming her inspiration is hybridised material and form between organic and virtual, the slow digitised multi-dimensional scroll is used to display a digitised landscape inspired by the fabrics of the fashion-house.

Ludy sees the NFT moment as a time for artists to reshape and evolve the art market as they gain a new type of leverage in the form of drops and NFT sales. Redefining profit distribution from her sales with gallerists, she broke ground last year when she negotiated the split of profits from her digital work, 50% for herself and 35% to be split evenly between gallery workers, including the gallerists themselves. This was intended to filter funds more equally back into artistic communities. 

Earlier this, the artist also collaborated with fellow digital artists Amir Fallah and Ana Maria Caballero on a co-organized fundraiser, Art for Ukraine, featuring 100 NFTs minted in Tezos. This environmentally friendly crypto-currency is priced much lower than ETHEREUM, increasing access. According to the journal, ArtNews, each time a work was purchased through the auction, seven aid charities in Ukraine split the profits.

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